Penguins coach on Wilson hit: ‘At some point we hope the league might do something’

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PITTSBURGH — Forget that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been two of the best teams in the NHL over the past decade. Forget that they possess the two greatest players of this generation — heck, they are two of the greatest players in the history of the sport — in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Forget that the former scored his eighth goal of the playoffs on Tuesday, and that the latter continued what has been to this point a marvelous and dominant postseason performance with his eighth goal of the playoffs to complete a third period comeback and lift the Capitals to a 4-3 win, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series against their long-time nemesis.

This series, no matter who wins it or loses it, is no longer about any of that. It is no longer about the two superstars. It is no longer about Pittsburgh’s quest for a three-peat, or the Capitals’ quest to break through the second-round glass ceiling.

This series is, at least for now, the Tom Wilson series.

For the second time in as many games, and for the third time in these playoffs, another player had to leave a game with an injury — this one a significant injury — as a result of yet another controversial hit from the Capitals’ forward.

This time the unlucky recipient was Penguins rookie forward Zach Aston-Reese — joining Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg in the first round, and Brian Dumoulin, Aston-Reese’s teammate, in this round  — as he was crushed in front of the Capitals’ bench. He remained on the ice for several moments before finally bringing himself to his feet and slowly skating to the locker room. Just as there was on Sunday when Brian Dumoulin had to exit the game, there was no penalty called on the play.

All four officials had a lengthy discussion after the play.

Paul Devorski, the NHL’s on-site supervisor, spoke to a pool reporter after the game to explain what was going on there.

“When we have a big hit like that, and there’s a lot of stuff going on on the ice, our guys come together,” said Devorski. “Obviously both referees didn’t put their arm up, so obviously they didn’t think there was a penalty. So now they bring in the linesmen, who if they think it’s a major penalty, they’ll tell the referees. So they all got together and they said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good, clean check here.”

Devorski’s brother, Greg Devorski, was one of the linesman in the game. Ryan Gibbons was the other. The referees were Kevin Pollock and Francois St. Laurent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

After the game an obviously irritated Mike Sullivan revealed the extent of Aston-Reese’s injury, perhaps in an effort to grab the attention of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. After all, the result of the hit often times seems to play a role in what punishment is handed out.

“Well, we just have to stay focussed,” said Sullivan, when asked how the team has to try and maintain its composure in the wake of that play.

“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that is going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head. At some point we would hope that the league might do something. But as far as we’re concerned, all we can control is what is within our power and that is our focus on the game. That is where our focus will be.”

Sullivan really didn’t need to call attention to any of it, though.

Not only does the league review everything, but the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, former long-time enforcer George Parros, was in attendance in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. He had a front row seat for all of it. What he and his staff decide to do in the wake of this one will be anybody’s guess, though recent history probably gives us a good indication of where they might go.

Just as was the case with the Wennberg hit in the first-round, and just as their was with the Dumoulin hit on Sunday, and just as there has been with pretty much every controversial, borderline hit that Wilson has delivered in his career, there is again enough gray area here — or unclear views on replay, or anything else that seems to happen when these hits get delivered — to leave everything open to debate.

Mike Sullivan simply called it a high hit.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz also weighed in, not only on the hit, but Wilson in general.

“Tom is obviously a big body, he is tremendously strong and he hits hard,” said Trotz. “My first look at the hit, both guys are bracing for it, it is shoulder to shoulder and he just blew through him. There are very passionate fan bases, we have a passionate fan base. Pitt does, too. You can’t be neutral. That’s why there is a neutral party that looks at it. We just say all along whatever the league decides, we are good with it. To me it was a hard hockey hit. If you want my opinion that is what I saw. It was shoulder to shoulder.”

When Trotz was asked a follow-up that included the update on Aston-Reese’s status, he declined further comment and said he didn’t care about what Sullivan said.

“I already said what I am going to say about the hit, I don’t think I need to comment anymore, and I really don’t care what Sully said,” said Trotz. “I’m not on their medical team, so I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is I saw the hit, both guys braced for it, shoulder on shoulder, and I don’t know the extent of their player so I don’t think I should comment on it.”

[Related: Wilson enrages Penguins with another controversial hit]

The Penguins were also not happy that Wilson was seen laughing on the bench after the play.

“I get the physical game. I get the physical play. I’ve been on the wrong side of it,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “At the end of the day I respect what kind of game he plays. But you don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You don’t do that.”

Justin Schultz called it “disrespectful.”

The Capitals did not make Wilson available to the media after the game.

Now we play the waiting game on Wednesday to see if Wilson is summoned for a disciplinary hearing.

Given that he was actually penalized during the game for the Wennberg hit and still did not receive a suspension, and did not have a hearing for the Dumoulin hit, it would be awfully hard to believe the league would draw the line here on this.

That means Wilson will probably be back on the ice for Game 4 on Thursday where he will no doubt end up being the center of attention, whether it be before the game when both sides are asked about him or his play, or something he does during the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby might score some more goals.

Might even be a great game with another fantastic finish.

But make no mistake, this is now the Tom Wilson series.

UPDATE: Wilson will have a DoPS hearing on Wednesday.

Related: On Tom Wilson, player safety, and avoiding suspensions

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

On Tom Wilson, Player Safety and avoiding suspension

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For the second time this postseason Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been fortunate enough to avoid discipline from the NHL Department of Player Safety for a hit to the head that injured an opponent.

In the first-round it was Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg, who went on to miss three games after he was hit in the head early in their series. Wilson was given a two-minute penalty for charging on the play, but the hit did not warrant a disciplinary hearing, let alone a fine from the DoPS.

On Sunday, it was Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin who was knocked out of the Capitals’ 4-1 Game 2 win. Dumoulin was back on the ice at practice for the Penguins on Monday and seems like he will be available for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Wilson once again avoided a disciplinary hearing and a suspension for what could probably be best described as a borderline and controversial hit.

He avoided a suspension on this one because, in the NHL’s view (via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski), head contact was unavoidable because Dumoulin, in bracing for contact from an oncoming Alex Ovechkin, changed the position of his head just prior to contact. There did not seem to be any word on the changing position of Wilson’s shoulder, which seemed to play just as big of a role in the contact as Dumoulin changing the position of his head.

He avoided a suspension in the first-round on the Wennberg hit because the DoPS could not determine if the head was the main point of contact given the available camera angles.

[Related: Tom Wilson avoids suspension for hit on Brian Dumoulin]

Viewed in a vacuum and as isolated incidents those explanations might hold up. They might make sense. They might even be justified.

Here is the problem with that: This same thing keeps happening with Tom Wilson.

He always seems to find himself in these positions. He always seems to find himself at the center of the controversial play where “there is nothing else he could have done,” or “the contact could not be avoided,” or “there was not a clear view of what happened.” No matter the situation, no matter the hit, no matter the result, there is an always an excuse for why it was okay or why it shouldn’t have been elevated to the level of supplemental discipline. The story of his career to this point can probably be summed up as: Hey, that was probably a bad hit with an unfortunate result for the guy on the receiving end of it but there just wasn’t enough evidence to suspend him … this time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2013-14 season no player in the NHL has been penalized more than Wilson. His 806 penalty minutes in the regular season are 85 more than the next closest player, and he is one of just three players in the league to be assessed more than even 600 penalty minutes during that stretch (Antoine Roussel at 721 and Cody McLeod at 707) are the only others.

He is third when it comes to penalty minutes in the playoffs (only seven behind the leader, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin) even though he has only played in 46 playoff games during that stretch. The two players ahead of him — Malkin and P.K. Subban — have played in 71 and 59, respectively, during that same stretch.

His career to this point is littered with borderline plays that leave plenty of room for debate as to whether or not they are clean, dirty, or something in between.

A brief sampling:

  • In 2015, he was given a match penalty for a hit on Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar (play here) that was later rescinded, allowing him to avoid the mandatory suspension that comes with a match penalty.
  • During the 2015-16 he was ejected for boarding Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell (play here), a play that he was not suspended for.
  • Later that season he obliterated Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov on a hit that left Zadorov concussed (play here). There was no suspension.
  • During the 2013-14 season Wilson had a phone hearing for a violent hit on Philadelphia Flyers Brayden Schenn. He was not only not suspended — something that is extremely rare when a player has a hearing with the DoPS — the DoPS released a nearly four-minute video (seen here) explaining why he was not suspended (the DoPS rarely goes on the record for why a player was not suspended, let alone singling out a specific play for this sort of in-depth description).

Those are just some of the borderline plays that didn’t result in punishment. Amazingly, for all of the penalty minutes he has received, the times he has been ejected, and all of the plays that create arguments he has only been fined or suspended three times in his career.

During the 2015-16 playoffs (also against the Penguins) he was given a $2,900 fine for kneeing Conor Sheary on a play where he deliberately went out of his way en route to the bench during a line change to deliver a hit away from the play.

He was suspended twice for incidents this preseason. The first was a slap on the wrist that kept him out of two preseason games for this hit on St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas.

Then, just one week later in another preseason game against the very same Blues team, he was given a four-game suspension for boarding Samuel Blais.

When the NHL DoPS reviews a play for suspension the first thing they do is eliminate the players involved and simply look at the hit itself as an isolated incident. Past transgressions do not matter. Reputations do not matter. Repeat offender status does not matter. It is simply the play itself they are looking at. The discussion at that point is centered entirely around “does this play warrant discipline on our part?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then — and only then — does a player’s past come into play when determining the length and severity of the punishment.

This, of course, is done in an effort to be fair and to not let any bias play into the ruling. That is entirely understandable. In most cases it probably works in handing out punishments.

It can lead to some issues.

When it comes to Wilson and the plays he has been involved in throughout his career there is always some amount of gray area in them. The Lazar play could be written off as accidental. Same as the Dumoulin play. Maybe the head wasn’t the main point of contact or targeted on Wennberg or Zadorov. On any one of them you can look at them and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the intended result, or that isn’t what he was going for, or that there was some other extenuating circumstance that made the play what it was.

At what point, though, does this no longer become an accident?

If a player — in this case, Wilson — keeps finding himself in these situations when does it stop becoming an unfortunate series of events and start becoming a trend? At what point does it simply become about the player that is the common denominator in all of these situations?

At any given time there are more than 700 players on NHL rosters and there are only a small handful of them that we keep having these discussions about when it comes to their style of play and the incidents they are involved in. Matt Cooke used to be one of those players. Raffi Torres used to be one of those players. Brad Marchand, quite famously, is still one of them. And like Wilson, Marchand always seems to leave enough gray area for debate on a lot of his incidents (the old, accidentally on purpose type of play). Even though he has been suspended and fined more than any other player in the league during the DoPS era, there are countless other plays that seem to toe that line.

Even though the NHL’s DoPS won’t handle it this way, all of those players should lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this stuff. Wilson should be right there with them.

Wilson and the Capitals will argue that all of this is because of his reputation and the fact he has a target on his back.

“Yes, a little bit, yeah,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz on Monday, via the Washington Post, when asked if Wilson has a reputation to overcome.

“It’s something that you try to grow out of. He’s grown as a player. He’s gone from being a fourth-line energy guy to first-line power forward, and sometimes those reputations stay with you a little bit and you have to outgrow that, if you will, or it takes a little time. I think he’s doing a really good job. He studies it, he looks at it, he’s trying to get better all the time. It’s something he has to battle a little bit.”

Maybe he does have a reputation to overcome. Maybe he does have a target. But it is a target he has more than earned given his chosen style of play throughout his career. A style of play that carefully toes the line, always leaving just enough room for debate as to whether or not he intended to do the thing that he did that resulted in the unfortunate result for the opponent to avoid a suspension. After all, there was probably just nothing else he can do that situation.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins’ Dumoulin injured by hit to head from Tom Wilson

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Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson avoided a suspension in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets when he delivered a high hit to Alexander Wennberg that sidelined him for several games.

Will he be that lucky this time around?

Wilson was at the center of another borderline play in the second period of Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins when he caught Brian Dumoulin with a head to the head.

The incident happened with Wilson in pursuit of Dumoulin behind the Penguins net. With Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin closing in from the front, Dumoulin made a play on the puck and was in a position to be sandwiched by the two Capitals forwards. It was at that point that Wilson’s shoulder caught Dumoulin square in the side of the head.

You can see the play in the video above.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Dumoulin remained on the ice before slowly making his way to the locker room and exiting the game.

If Dumoulin is sidelined for any extended period of time it could be a huge blow to the Penguins. They are already lacking in depth on the blue line and Dumoulin has been one of the their best players defensively this postseason.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The question now becomes whether or not Wilson will be disciplined by the NHL.

There is no question that Wilson hit Dumoulin in the head. The decision the Department of Player Safety will have to make is if he intended to do it and whether or not it was avoidable.

There have already been five suspensions in the playoffs this year.

UPDATE: Wilson will not have a hearing with the DoPS.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

Capitals sticking with Philipp Grubauer for Game 2

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After losing Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz announced on Saturday that he is sticking with goalie Philipp Grubauer for Game 2 of the series on Sunday night.

Grubauer’s rise to the top goaltending spot in Washington is one of the more interesting first-round developments, simply because he has managed to unseat one of the best goalies in the league over the past few years in Braden Holtby.

On one hand, it’s somewhat understandable.

Holtby had a down year by his standards and Grubauer has been excellent down the stretch.

But Holtby isn’t just some guy or some random goalie that we’re talking about here. He has been in the top-five in Vezina Trophy voting three years in a row and in the top-two in each of the past two, winning it in 2015-16. Even more, he’s been mostly pretty great in the playoffs during his career, entering the season with a .932 save percentage in 59 postseason games. That is the second highest save percentage in NHL history among goalies that have played in at least 50 postseason games (he is just .001 behind Tim Thomas’ mark of .933).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Still, the Capitals are sticking with guy that is probably “the hot hand” at the moment.

“I thought he was fine, there was nothing in that game that would make you say, why don’t you make a change,” Trotz said on Saturday (via Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Washington).

“Philip was really was good. I thought in that game we had the game, we kept letting off the floor. They got back into that game, then in the third period we took a couple of penalties that were unnecessary and they got back in the game. Then going into overtime you’re a shot away. All that being said it was a special play by Panarin, and there are very few people that can make that shot. He made that shot. We’ve got some guys that can do the same thing. We’re going back with Gruby, we have a lot of confidence in him, and he’ll be ready.”

Two things are very true there: It was a special play by Panarin (watch it here!), and penalties did get the Capitals in trouble in the third period. Tom Wilson‘s hit on Alexander Wennberg resulted in Thomas Vanek‘s power play goal to tie the game at two, erasing the two-goal advantage Washington had built earlier in the game on an extended power play of their own. Then, after regaining the lead, Andre Burakovsky took a terrible tripping penalty that sent Columbus back to the power play allowing Seth Jones to tie the game.

Since Dec. 1, the Capitals are 14-5-2 when Grubauer starts while he has a .936 save percentage, second best among goalies with at least 20 starts during that stretch.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.